“A Coat of Many Colors”

In this post, I want to pick up some of the themes I alluded to in my first post and respond to Marc’s observations here and Mark’s observations here. The title of this post is from Justice Harlan’s discussion of neutrality in Bd. of Educ. v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236, 249 (1968)(Harlan, J., concurring).

Marc points out the inherent uncertainty as to the meaning of “neutrality” within each system. Indeed, I agree that there is great indeterminacy in both systems; and there are different judicial and academic interpretations. In fact, one of the premises in my book was that – even though the term is used frequently in constitutional decisions in both countries – we don’t really know enough about what neutrality means in each system. Given this uncertainty, I advocated for a contextual inquiry into the meaning in each system before turning to a comparative perspective.

The German Federal Constitutional Court offered two noteworthy interpretations of neutrality in its landmark Crucifix and Headscarf decisions. In my last post, I quoted the Crucifix decision as saying that “[t]he state, in which adherents of different or even opposing religious and ideological convictions live together, can guarantee peaceful coexistence only if it itself maintains neutrality in matters of faith.” In the Headscarf case, the court offered its most elaborate discussion of state neutrality to date, stating that

the religious and ideological neutrality required of the state is not to be understood as a  distancing attitude in the sense of a strict separation of state and church, but as an open and comprehensive one, encouraging freedom of faith equally for all beliefs. Article 4.1 and 4.2 of the Basic Law also contain a positive requirement to safeguard the space for active exercise of religious conviction and the realisation of autonomous personality in the area of ideology and religion. The state is prohibited only from exercising deliberate influence in the service of a particular political or ideological tendency or expressly or impliedly identifying itself by way of measures originated by it or attributable to it with a particular belief or a particular ideology and in this way itself endangering religious peace in a society. The principle of religious and ideological neutrality also bars the state from evaluating the faith and doctrine of a religious group as such.

So here we have an example of the court itself setting up different interpretations of neutrality. (Professor Markus Thiel – among other insightful observations – recently raised some interesting questions regarding the interpretive role of the Federal Constitutional Court in relation to academic scholarship in our exchange here.)

A quick final point about taxation, an issue raised in the comments to Mark’s post. One of the more striking features of the German system is the concept of “limping separation” that allows for certain benefits of state-recognized religious bodies – perhaps most notably from the U.S. perspective, the collection of church taxes by the state. Mark pointed out correctly that the German church tax may be avoided by resigning church membership. And, as some may remember, the German Federal Administrative Court last year addressed the question of resigning church membership (reported for example here). Moreover, under the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, while nonadherents may be taxed by an established state church for delegated state functions (such as keeping birth and death records, maintaining cemeteries or performing marriages) they may not be taxed for religious activities. I’ve written about some of those funding aspects in comparative perspective in my recent article “Transnational Nonestablishment” published in the George Washington Law Review and available online here.

And with that, I’ll leave Lautsi and symbols for next time.

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